Editorial Article: Reshaping the diagnostics industry: Resilience and rapid testing during COVID-19 and beyond

Collaborations with the UK government and wider academic community have driven innovation to quickly meet COVID demands

26 Oct 2020

Duncan Porter, Senior Director and leader of the clinical microbiology segment at Thermo Fisher Scientific

As the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the UK, the diagnostic industry faced extraordinary demands to provide rapid, accurate testing in large numbers. To sustain this elevated demand, diagnostics providers engaged in collaborative efforts and adopted innovative approaches that have reshaped the landscape of population health management.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leading player in clinical diagnostics, partnered with UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for country-wide, rapid COVID-19 testing. Here, we speak with Duncan Porter, Senior Director and leader of the clinical microbiology segment at Thermo Fisher, to learn about the impact of collaboration and diagnostic strategies during COVID-19 and the preparedness for future pandemics.

“The current landscape of disease management in the UK is going through some fundamental changes,” says Porter. In addition to COVID-related strains, the increasing aging population in the UK poses a growing demand on the healthcare system due to higher chances of multi-morbidity, the coexistence of two or more long-term medical conditions. “There is a high correlation between co-morbidity and old age. That puts tremendous pressure on our healthcare system, adding increased costs in looking after our elderly population,” adds Porter.

“If we look back through the Office of National Statistics data, we can see that the year-on-year trend of GDP spend on healthcare is increasing. We also recognize that this is not sustainable and, therefore, new innovative ways of providing the shortest path to the best care at the lowest cost is really important,” explains Porter. Early diagnostics that provide a ‘first time right’ approach have the potential to reduce the overall healthcare costs by increasing the efficiency of patient care and alleviating the sustained demands on the healthcare system. “Providing earlier diagnosis ensures that the right patients receive the right treatment at the right time.”

Providing earlier diagnosis ensures that the right patients receive the right treatment at the right time

Duncan Porter

Thermo Fisher Scientific

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that diagnostics play in population health management. It has challenged the healthcare system with exceedingly high short-term demands and will continue to have a prolonged effect in the long term as other diagnostic tests get postponed in the light of urgent COVID-19 testing. “The speed in which the industry has needed to adapt to the increasing demands has been phenomenal,” says Porter. “The current pandemic has seen a huge increase in required capacity within labs across the globe. Here in the UK, the government set up five lighthouse labs which acted as a ‘hub and spoke’ model to provide maximum capacity in the short term. Thermo Fisher has equipped these lighthouse labs with qPCR systems to process collected samples and determine whether patients are COVID-positive.”

The ‘hub and spoke’ diagnostic strategy employed for COVID-19 testing has made it possible to perform mass screening as the sample collection is performed in the patient’s home and testing occurs within the labs. “Looking forward, population health management is going to require additional capacity as we try to move from a reactive phase to a more proactive phase of diagnostics,” notes Porter. 

With an unprecedented global demand for testing, Thermo Fisher has responded quickly to serve its customers and has built a new facility in Lenexa, Kansas, USA and expanded an existing facility in Perth, Scotland to support the manufacturing of viral transport medium (VTM). These factories will play a fundamental role in increasing collection and transport capacity to meet today’s demands, as well as remain available as an invaluable resource for potential future pandemics.

A seamless connection across the health continuum is at the core of Thermo Fisher’s value system as it currently supports the UK diagnostics industry by building key collaborations between academia and healthcare. “During the pandemic response, we've been working very closely with Oxford University, helping to develop serology programs and other tests,” says Porter. “We know that academic research needs to be commercialized and scaled up quickly, particularly in pandemic situations. So, with our manufacturing facilities here in the UK, we have the capabilities to do that, backed by a global team of world-renowned scientists inside Thermo Fisher.”

Precision diagnostics and meeting the challenges ahead 

As the UK approaches the end of the transition period with the European Union, the diagnostics industry will need to further adapt and remain resilient to new changes. Porter adds: “This will require certain steps to ensure that our supply chains are robust and that we’re able to guarantee supply towards our customers during that transition period.”

In just the past year, the industry has challenged its long-standing status quo and shifted the paradigm of diagnostic testing as it accommodated the pandemic demands and prepares for Brexit-related changes. “I see diagnostics taking a much more inclusive and holistic approach within the delivery of healthcare. The focus will shift from trying to contain testing costs to serving as a value driver in delivering personalized healthcare,” notes Porter. 

The advent of precision diagnostics coupled with precision medicine will ensure that patients receive the most appropriate tests and the most suitable drugs to treat the conditions they’re facing rather than experiencing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ healthcare system. Porter continues: “If we're able to determine the right drug that specifically helps a patient, they may respond better. It can vastly improve their quality of life.” Such a personalized approach has the potential to reduce the length of stay in hospital and relieve the burden on the healthcare system as well.

“I'm also really excited about the fact that we're moving into the world of digitalization,” says Porter. Microbiology is one of the last disciplines within the healthcare industry to move from analog practices to digital systems. “Utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning, we plan to set up programs and read plates 24 hours a day in the near future. This automation will provide us with faster turnarounds, and its accuracy will give us the reliability to spot emerging diseases much earlier than we can today.”

The disrupting impact of COVID has challenged the UK healthcare system to grow in new and better ways and innovate within shorter time frames. In that process, it has slowly changed what the future of diagnostics will look like. “The lab of the future is going to be a very different place than we know today,” says Porter. “The convergence of precision diagnostics, big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will bring us into a new era. It will enable fast diagnostics such as rapid AST testing for antimicrobial susceptibility that will reduce the time required for results from multiple hours down to a single shift. These developments in diagnostics have the potential to save people's lives.”